Warner Bros. // 1976 // 137 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // December 1st, 2007
Led Zeppelin: In Concert and Beyond
Led Zeppelin: The Song Remains the Same mixes concert footage of the band with fantasy sequences that attempt to reveal the inner thoughts of the musicians. The result is an unsatisfying pastiche that will disappoint many fans.
By 1973, Led Zeppelin -- guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant, bassist John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham -- was easily one of the most popular rock bands in the world. Its concerts packed stadiums and its albums easily outsold practically any other artist of the day. But because they had refused to appear on television or grant many interviews, they were virtually invisible to anyone outside the rock music scene. To remedy this, the band and manager Peter Grant hired director Joe Massot (Zachariah) to shoot a series of three shows at New York's Madison Square Garden for release as a feature film. Massot hastily assembled a film crew, many of whom had never shot a concert film before, in three days and got to work. However, the band was not entirely satisfied with the concert footage, feeling it was badly shot and their performance was not up to par, and so they declined to release it. But in 1975, Plant was severely injured in a near-fatal auto accident, and the band was forced to cancel a lucrative tour. So they revisited the film, this time with a new director, Peter Clifton (Rock City), who agreed with the band to patch up the holes in the concert footage with "fantasy" sequences, meaning scenes of the band members and Grant acting out little vignettes, complete with make-up, costumes, and special effects. Some home and backstage footage was added to round out the movie, which was finally released to theaters in 1976.
Given such a tumultuous history, it's no accident that Led Zeppelin fans have always had a love/hate relationship with The Song Remains the Same. Until the 2003 release of the Led Zeppelin DVD set, this was the only way fans who never got to see the band live could watch them perform, apart from seeking out obscenely overpriced, low-quality VHS bootlegs. Indeed, for fans there are some highlights. The band members have frequently downplayed their performances as inferior, mainly because the film was shot at the end of a long and grueling tour. But the concert, while uneven, does have some real highlights, especially "Black Dog," "The Song Remains the Same," the closing "Whole Lotta Love," and, of course, "Stairway to Heaven." Even if Plant's voice cracks and Page plays some bum notes, and various concert shots are grainy and poorly photographed, there's still some good music to enjoy for hardcore fans. The backstage footage, while sparse, also has some interesting bits. For instance, seeing Grant confirm his reputation as a thuggish bully by mercilessly berating an MSG security guard for not doing enough to stop bootleggers is fascinating to watch.
Unfortunately, it's the fantasy sequences that are meant to make this more than an average concert film, and they could have been interesting, were they not so amateurish and nonsensical. Jones' fantasy (which runs during "No Quarter") involves him dressed as an 18th century highwayman who somehow still finds time to come home to his wife and kids. Plant's fantasy (during "The Song Remains the Same" and "The Rain Song") depicts him as a Celtic prince who sails to a strange land where he battles sinister knights to free a beautiful maiden. Page's fantasy (during "Dazed and Confused") shows him climbing a mountain to visit an aged hermit, who, it is revealed, is actually himself as an old man. Even Grant gets a fantasy, at the beginning of the film, playing a ruthless gangster who shoots up a room full of rivals. Only Bonham eschews the fantasy format, preferring to appear (during "Moby Dick") in simple scenes showing him working on his farm and playing with his race car collection.
It's these fantasy scenes (except for Bonham's) that prevent fans from recommending the film to newcomers. Not only are they ludicrous and self-aggrandizing, but the direction is heavy-handed and the production quality awful even by '70s standards. Zep may have decided to fund the film themselves to avoid studio interference, but that's still no excuse to allow such penny-pinching to sink what are clearly meant to be crucial elements of the film. The band may have thought the scenes' incoherence to be forgivable, since they're more meant to be visual accompaniments to the music, but even on that level, they fail, since the visuals are so embarrassing.
The fantasy scenes highlight another flaw. In order to get the fantasies to fit into the film, the band and directors decided to cut out some of Zep's faster and shorter songs to make room for the longer, more epic numbers that better serve as musical accompaniments. Consequently, the film is badly paced, resulting in way too many long, slow songs packed nearly next to each other, with almost no breathing room in between. Having no less than three lengthy, sluggish numbers -- a gloomy "No Quarter," a turgid "Rain Song," and a bloated "Dazed and Confused" -- crammed nearly together will stupefy even the hardiest fan. And that's not even considering Bonham's 10-minute drum solo during "Moby Dick." Even if a drum solo is captivating in concert (and that's a big if), here it's just plain interminable. Plus, it's the lengthy tunes that really highlight the weakness of the performances, with most of the errors and slips coming during the extended jams and improvisations.
In the end, The Song Remains the Same is a disappointment. By attempting to be more than a concert film, with all the fantasy vignettes, it winds up being less than a good concert film like Woodstock or Gimme Shelter. It's the band's ambition that ends up sinking the film, by removing the humor and energy that made Led Zeppelin such an exciting concert act and replacing them with cinematic pretensions that are neither good cinema nor musically interesting. In addition, the film fails to explain just why the band was so revered. Plenty of concert footage exists that demonstrates just what a thrilling, powerful live act Led Zeppelin was, but you will only get a fraction of that here. The movie paints a portrait of a band that is self-important, self-indulgent, and devoid of self-awareness. Much has emerged since then to prove how untrue that is, but because the band released the film itself, such perceptions have plagued them to this day.
So what about this new DVD release? The Song Remains the Same was released before on DVD, back in 1999, in a spare version with only a stereo mix and a theatrical trailer. For this version, Page, a notorious perfectionist, has gone back to re-master the film and remix the sound. The video has, in fact, not improved greatly. Some of the dirt and scratches from the earlier transfer are gone, and the film isn't quite as dark and muddy as before. The grain has also lessened, but not by much, and is still clearly visible, particularly in scenes that go from light to dark quickly. Ultimately, this is probably as good as this film can look, given its age and the sloppy, rushed shoot.
The sound, on the other hand, is extraordinary. The 5.1 DTS mix and the 5.1 Dolby Surround mix are both brutally loud, handily eclipsing the earlier mix. The vocals and drums are upfront, while the guitars come from all directions and the bass will give any subwoofer a good workout. As earsplitting as it gets, though, the sound never gets muddy or indistinct, and every instrument is clearly audible. An especially clever trick occurs during "Dazed and Confused," when Page hits his guitar strings repeatedly with a violin bow and each noise comes from a different speaker. There may be slightly more oomph to the DTS mix, but frankly, both mixes are so deafening that it will be very hard to really distinguish them. There's also the original 1976 PCM Stereo mix, which was considered noisy for its time, and is still quite good. Subtitles in English, Spanish, and French are also provided.
Disc One contains the film. As for the extras, they're all on Disc Two, and are a well-chosen mix of outtakes and band-related trivia. For fans, the highlights will be the songs cut out of the finished film: "Celebration Day" (3:39), "Over the Hills and Far Away" (6:19), "Misty Mountain Hop" (4:51), and "The Ocean" (4:41), all in widescreen and available with optional 5.1 DTS, 5.1 Surround, and PCM Stereo. "The Ocean" and "Misty Mountain Hop" are the same versions previously released on the Led Zeppelin DVD, but "Celebration Day" has only ever been heard on the soundtrack album; here we finally get to see the matching footage. "Over the Hills" has never been released before anywhere. All of these are actually quite good, raucous, energetic, and really exciting, with phenomenal sound. They only underscore what a grave miscalculation it was to focus the film on the long-winded slow songs that wound up demonstrating the band's exhaustion and boredom.
Most of the remaining extras are in full frame. First is a hilarious 1973 "Tampa News Report" (3:25) from a TV station on the band's performance there at the beginning of the tour. The blow-dried hair and polyester attire of the anchor and reporter are comical enough, but what's even funnier is the reporter's clumsy attempt to explain the band to viewers by repeatedly comparing them to the Beatles, while also presuming to show his hipness by dropping in bits of slang and supposed insider trivia. It probably would have helped, though, had he not misidentified Page as Plant or mangled Bonham's name so badly. It's an amusing look at how, in that pre-MTV era, the mainstream media viewed rock music as bizarre and confusing.
There's also "Boating Down the Thames" (8:21), a 1976 BBC interview with Plant and Grant on a tugboat to promote the film's release. Both men are far too cagey to reveal much, although Grant does let slip why Zep so adamantly refused to appear on TV. Another extra is "The Robbery" (5:03), a news report from an New York City TV station on a robbery Zep suffered during the shows, when someone broke into the band's hotel safe deposit box and lifted $200,000. The film only barely alludes to the robbery, but here more detail is provided, including a press conference with Grant and the hotel's manager. It's a fascinating bit of trivia, particularly since, to this day, the robbery has never been solved.
Additionally, there is a "1976 Radio Profile Spotlight" (14:59) by none other than Cameron Crowe. Now known as the director of Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, he was then an editor at Rolling Stone, where he interviewed Page and Plant several times. Here he simply recites the band's history while piling on superlatives, as song snippets play in the background. To be fair, Crowe was all of 18 when he recorded this, so his breathless fanboy gushing can be somewhat forgivable. Nonetheless, even the most devout Crowe or Zep fan will find this piece far too nauseating to endure more than once.
Rounding out the extras is the film's theatrical trailer (00:59) in widescreen.
The Song Remains the Same is not a great concert film. It's not even the best Zeppelin DVD (the '03 set is definitive). But it is a perfect snapshot of a time and place in both the band's history and rock music in general. In those pre-Internet, pre-VH1 days, this was the only way for fans of the band to really get a sense of their personalities, especially since Zep was famous for not granting many interviews. What's more, the neo-psychedelic touches and long-winded musical numbers might seem badly dated now, but back in the '70s, to an audience that was still enjoying the after-effects of the '60s, they would have been commonplace. In fact, the film did turn out to be influential. The sword-and-sorcery imagery of the fantasy scenes laid the groundwork for virtually every heavy metal video of the 1980s.
For Zep fans, there's no question that this new version supersedes the earlier DVD release of this film; the thunderous new sound mix and extra performances are easily worth the price alone. For newcomers to the Zeppelin mystique, the '03 Led Zeppelin DVD is really the place to start before getting this one. Non-fans probably shouldn't bother with The Song Remains the Same.
The Song Remains the Same is guilty of being painfully dated and self-indulgent, and not doing a good job of presenting just how extraordinary Led Zeppelin could be in concert. Warner Brothers and Jimmy Page, on the other hand, are acquitted for putting together an impressive DVD package that has just about everything one could ever want or need about this movie.
Review content copyright © 2007 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 137 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Celebration Day
* Over the Hills and Far Away
* Misty Mountain Hop
* The Ocean
* Tampa News Report
* Boating Down the Thames
* The Robbery
* 1976 Radio Profile Spotlight
* Theatrical Trailer